Proud Mary Bono

George Magazine/August, 1999
By Ann Bardach

Launched into politics by the tragic death of her husband, Sonny, Mary Bono has merged Hollywood and Washington to become the Republicans' sexiest celebrity politician. But as Ann Louise Bardach reports, Bono's political future may depend on how she handles the legacy that Sonny left behind: the sniping with Cher, the tabloid tales about her own private life, and Sonny's relationship with the Church of Scientology.

Everybody loved Sonny Bono. Despite a steady, gray drizzle, thousands of mourners descended upon Palm Springs, California, on January 9, 1998, to pay tribute to the man so many had underestimated. Outside St. Theresa's Roman Catholic Church, fans listened to the funeral service over loudspeakers. Packed inside were 1,400 people -- family, friends, ex-wives, 100 members of Congress. There was the show business crowd from Sonny's previous career, the Republicans from his most recent one, the Scientologists who had known Sonny for years, and even the mob: One honorary pallbearer, Dominic Montemarano, a beloved friend of the Bonos and a reputed Colombo family capo who had done an 11-year stretch in prison for racketeering, pushed back tears. Cher, who had jetted in from London, clutched her daughter, Chastity, who sobbed audibly. Mary Bono, a widow at the age of 36, sat in the front row, her arms tightly woven around her children, Chesare and Chianna.

But grief and consolation were only part of the agenda that morning. Cher, whose career was limping along on infomercials and whose relationship with the deceased had been decidedly strained, gave a sob-racked eulogy that would rekindle her celebrity. In the preceding days, several people had anxiously sought the ear of Mary Bono. Before Sonny's death, Mary had been a little-known political wife. Now she was a player, and notwithstanding her shock, decisions had to be made, and she had to make them -- quickly. Calls came in from House Speaker Newt Gingrich, family friends, and lobbyists currying favor. Gingrich, who spoke at the funeral, would urge Mary Bono to step into her husband's seat. And then there were the Scientologists, who claimed Sonny as one of their own. They had asked if the president of the Church of Scientology, the Reverend Heber Jentzsch, could conduct the service, which would have afforded them an unprecedented showcase. But they lost out to the Catholic Church.

The Republicans, however, fared much better with the young widow.

Three months later, Mary Bono, the fourth wife of Sonny Bono, was representing California's 44th District in the House of Representatives and sitting on two important committees formerly occupied by Sonny: Judiciary and National Security. Before her husband's death, Bono, who had never voted until Sonny ran for mayor of Palm Springs in 1988, had been a long-haired, buffed blond partial to spandex and knit tops. Today she sports a demure brunette bob and tasteful tailored suits, and speaks earnestly about tax cuts and family values. She has metamorphosed from gym junkie to Republican party muse; she has gone from karate workouts to lectures on the sins of Bill Clinton. "Mary Bono is going to be a real star in our party," gushed GOP representative John Linder.

Indeed, the ascension of Bono is among the most stunning political makeovers of our time. A chorus of Republicans is expressing the kind of adulation that has rarely been heard since the arrival of Ronald Reagan. Comparisons are in order: two Southern California conservatives, Hollywood connected, and TV friendly. Democrats suspect, as they did with Reagan, that she is a Manchurian candidate, a pretty but empty vessel.

But Republican praise is virtually universal. "I am a huge, huge Mary Bono fan," rhapsodizes Jim Rogan, a California representative. Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde gropes for the right words: "How can I say this? She gave us insight from a feminine perspective on the Lewinsky affair, which was very helpful. She's a lovely person, fun to be with, a quick learner, serious, with politically conservative instincts." Former president Gerald Ford chimes in, "Betty and I voted for her. Mary's a big supporter of the Betty Ford Center, and I can tell you she runs a good office."

Moreover, Bono was a desperately needed presence in the Republican men's club. A recent visit to a Judiciary Committee hearing offers vivid testimony on the importance of Mary Bono. Somehow the GOP's Big Tent theory never took hold here. The Democratic side, with five African-American members, four women, six Jews, and one gay man, is the picture postcard of ethnically, sexually diverse America. On the Republican side are 20 white, Christian men, mostly southerners -- and Bono, resplendent in a silver-gray shoulder-padded Armani jacket, a gold Cartier bracelet dangling on her wrist, a Gucci handbag at her side.

She provides what Republicans have sorely lacked in the age of Clinton: sex appeal and star power. Politics and celebrity merge in her. She's attractive, she carries the name of a famous, beloved entertainer, and she's telegenic, all of which has the potential to appeal to voters far beyond her district. Still, having ascended to power on her husband's name, Bono arrives with all of his baggage: his kitschy career as a rock 'n' roller, his trio of ex-wives, and his contentious mother. And she is a political neophyte unused to the scrutiny brought on by the tensions between politics and celebrity. Her star is bright -- if she can survive her past.

Describing her contribution during the impeachment saga, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Judiciary Committee colleague, flashes his trademark grin and says, "Mary comes from California, and she put sex in its proper perspective."

But Bono's perspective also precipitated a siege of uninvited attention. In her brief Beltway career, she has graced more tabloids than any other politician, and the savaging of her personal life has been matched only by that of Bill Clinton's. The stories have spread the salacious rumors about her love life and detailed her soap opera feud with Sonny's family -- the incendiary battle with his mother, the tiff with Cher that followed Cher's stage-stealing eulogy, and the financial claims on Sonny's estate. Most stunning, however, were Bono's own allegations in TV Guide last November about Sonny's abuse of painkillers and about their troubled marriage, which ignited a firestorm among the Bono faithful. Soon after Hillary Clinton appeared on the cover of Vogue, Bono found herself on the cover of the Flynt Report, Hustler magazine's special issue about the private lives of Republican politicians.

Not surprisingly, Bono's office is very nervous. Requests to interview her are ceaselessly negotiated, not unlike the ritual dance that publicists demand for their movie star clients. Publications requesting portraits are asked to provide a hair stylist and a makeup artist, which, while a sign of Bono's L.A. savvy, is virtually unheard of for a member of Congress. Frank Cullen Jr., Bono's press secretary, insists on being present at any interview with Bono, reinforcing the sense of him as a Hollywood minder.

But when Bono is finally allowed to appear, she is hardly the political problem child one has been led to expect. She is thoughtful and direct with an appealing, graceful manner. She speaks in a soft voice, though when displeased, she can be fierce. Twice during an interview at her home in Palm Springs, she gently but pointedly chides Cullen for answering for her.

Just six months after becoming widowed, Bono baffled many friends by selling the sprawling hacienda, which she and Sonny had shared, for $1.4 million -- an amount that some considered to be under value. Then she cleaned house with a vengeance. "Downsizing," as she told People. The new residence is a gracious Spanish-style home with a pool in an exclusive Palm Springs gated community. Her two children Chianna, 8, and Chesare, 11, their Guatemalan nanny, who has just had her own baby, and two dogs occupy one end of the house. At the other end are Bono's quarters, which include a workout room with a rack of weights and exercise machines. Bono was a gymnast as a child and later a devotee of rock climbing and the martial arts. "I should have my black belt," she says. "I have my red belt in tae kwon do and a purple belt in karate. "She complains that her Washington schedule cuts into her training. Flashing a pinkie knuckle that she broke in karate, she adds, "And I broke my foot doing judo."

The youngest of four children, Mary Whitaker grew up in Pasadena, an affluent, conservative suburb of Los Angeles. Her father, Clay, a surgeon, taught at the University of Southern California, and her mother, Karen, a chemist who had worked to put her husband through medical school, raised the children. Bono reluctantly confirms that her mother, long a recovered alcoholic, drank heavily during her childhood. "It forces you to become a much stronger person," she says with evident discomfort.

At USC, Bono majored in art history and took odd jobs waiting tables and tending bar. She met her future husband, 27 years her senior, in 1984 at his West Hollywood eatery, Bono. Two years later, Mary, 24, and Sonny married and moved the restaurant to Palm Springs. In 1988, Sonny Bono stunned skeptics by getting elected mayor of the resort town. After a failed Senate bid, he won a congressional seat in 1994 and again in 1996. Initially ridiculed, Sonny won over House colleagues with his enthusiasm and good cheer. Before his death in a skiing accident, his political future was promising. Bono says Sonny was considering another run for the Senate.

When Bono took her place on the political stage, she became not only a U.S. congresswoman but also a key player in the first presidential impeachment vote in the House in more than 130 years. Popping up frequently on news shows, Bono attacked the president's ethics and offered political cover for Republicans accused of being out of sync with American women. "I don't have any regrets about the impeachment process. I'd do it again the same way," Bono says evenly but not entirely convincingly. Her vote to remove the president, she says, was "never about sex -- it was about perjury." It's an important distinction for her because she is notably skittish about inquiries into her own life. She rarely misses an opportunity to lament that her role in the impeachment saga has opened her up to the same kind of personal scrutiny Clinton has endured.

She prefers to talk of more substantive matters. She says that her greatest accomplishment has been securing federal funding to advance Sonny's pet project, the rescue of the polluted Salton Sea, half an hour from Palm Springs. Bono represents a conservative district, and she calls herself a Reagan Republican who backs the former president's stands on "foreign policy, strong defense, limited federal government, and lower taxes." She adds, "The pro-life issue, that's where I differ." Like her late husband, Bono has long been pro-choice and a supporter of Planned Parenthood. "I'm a Republican, but not on this issue," she says. "It's destroying the Republican party." Bono did, however, anger women's groups by voting against federal funding for abortion and supporting a ban on "partial-birth" abortions. On guns, Bono describes herself as willing to toughen up gun control laws and pointedly says that she is philosophically miles from "extremists like [Georgia representative] Bob Barr," though she did vote with her party on a watered-down gun control bill in June. Bono has come up with a new label to describe herself: "I'm an Emerging Republican," she says, sounding pleased with herself.

Almost every Saturday, Bono hits the stump in her district. On an April evening, she is the featured speaker at a meeting of the Republican Women's Club in Desert Hot Springs. In a hotel conference room festooned with red, white, and blue balloons, several dozen women with titanium-blond hair noisily buzz about the room nibbling on pigs in blankets.

The event begins with a man in a plaid jacket offering an invocation to prayer "in Jesus' name." Bono, who later in the evening is scheduled to attend a posh event at the Rancho Mirage Ritz-Carlton with local luminaries -- the Annenbergs, Barbara Sinatra, and others -- is dressed to impress: black Armani tuxedo suit with satin lapels and strappy Manolo Blahnik heels. But these middle-class Republicans aren't put off by her expensive fashions, her political inexperience, or even the rumors about her love life. They nod approvingly as Bono reads from a prepared speech, punctuated by a winning smile, as she challenges the fact that her party lost the impeachment battle. "The Republicans will be proved right." Then she mock-confides, "You may or may not know that I am on the cover of the Flynt Report," and proceeds to describe her ordeal at the hands of some "15 to 20 investigators who came down here and knocked on the doors" of her friends, family, allies, and enemies. Later she works the room, attentive and respectful, like a young relation with her family elders. "This year, I learned they don't care how you dress, just how you do your hair," she quips to friendly chuckles. "Newt told me that if I went on the Judiciary Committee, they would tear me apart," Bono says, rolling her eyes. "Then he said, 'But after what you've been through with your mother-in-law.'"

The mother-in-law.

For Mary, Sonny's 85-year-old mother, Jean, is the mother-in-law from hell. For reporters, she's the Martha Mitchell of the Bono family drama. Since 1987, Jean has lived in Cathedral City, adjacent to Palm Springs. But Cat City, as the locals call it, is decidedly the other side of the tracks, and Jean's pleasant but modest home fronts a large vacant lot. Though she is confined to a wheelchair and is nearly blind, Jean's Sicilian vitriol remains undiminished. Raised in Detroit by Sicilian parents, Sonny's mother says she and her husband raised their three children to be "passionate Democrats."

Her own passion these days is railing against her daughter-in-law. "When Mary told me she was going to run for Congress right after Sonny's death, I said to her, 'Who's gonna raise the kids? They just lost their father, and now you're gonna disappear?'"

The children lived in Washington, D.C., with their parents before Sonny died, and Jean became "livid" when she learned the kids would move to Palm Springs with their nanny, while Mary stayed in D.C. "The night I told her not to leave the kids, they all turned against me," Jean says.

"She was angry at me before that," Bono says, challenging Jean's contention and adding that Jean has not seen her grandchildren in a year. "I don't want to get into this war with her. There's no way I can win this. The best thing is for me to let it alone and let her continue with her rage." But Jean's complaint about the children's separation from their mother has struck a chord with some conservative constituents, who have mused on local talk radio whether a mother who sees her children only during weekends and House recesses can be a role model of Republican family values. Still, friends like Marshall Gilbert, a Palm Springs radio talk-show host who was close to Sonny, defend her. "She's a wonderful mother," Gilbert says.

The family breach widened into an abyss after the TV Guide interview, in which Bono charged that Sonny was prone to angry mood swings and abused painkillers that contributed to his death. "I am 100 percent convinced that is why he died, "Bono said. "What he did showed absolute lack of judgment. That's what these pills do." Her marriage, Bono claimed, had problems. "It was a very difficult 12 years of my life. It took a lot to stay." The article also referred to a new boyfriend, whom she began dating nine months after Sonny's death.

"I will never, never forgive her for saying Sonny took drugs," Jean proclaims, her eyes narrowing. "She disgraced her husband, and she disgraced her children." Sonny's close friends agree that some years before he died Sonny took medication for a painful neck injury, but they deny that he was addicted and say that the autopsy report cites only a "trace" level of Valiu m. Susie Coelho, Sonny's third wife -- sandwiched between Cher and Mary --describes Sonny as "very anti-drug," and says of Bono's comments, "She offended a lot of people." Gilbert, who maintains that he spoke with Sonny every day for the last three years of his life, says he was stunned. "That TV Guide interview was unforgivable. But even if it were true, which it isn't, what good could come of it?"

Jean says the marriage was even worse than Bono portrayed. "About six months before [Sonny] died, he called me," she says. "He was alone and in tears. He said, 'She kicked me out. She wants a divorce.' He told me, 'She's fooling around.'"

Sonny's mother believes that her son never signed his will -- which Jean says would have made his wife his primary heir -- because of his suspicions about her. But Bono has a different explanation. "I'll tell you the truth. Sonny was not one to do paperwork. He was not one to sign things," she says. "He wasn't one who enjoyed reading things." Consequently, Sonny died without a valid will, creating a messy ordeal for his wife and his other heirs. Sonny's estate will now be divided among his widow and his four children by three wives. In addition, Cher has demanded a share of TV and music royalties, and Sonny's 91-year-old father, Santo, sued the estate to recover an unpaid loan.

When the tabloids called in search of dirt about Mary Bono, Jean said she believed that Bono had had extramarital affairs. "Sure," she said, "Sonny told me all about it." Bono vehemently denies the rumors, calling them "ludicrous and absurd." She describes her post-Sonny romance with Brian Prout, a drummer in the country-rock band Diamond Rio, as "a very strong" relationship, adding that "though dating isn't easy after losing someone. I think Brian's very special, and I hope it lasts."

One tabloid even printed rumors that Bono had had an affair with Newt Gingrich, who visited her district several times. Although Gingrich often traveled to Palm Springs with his wife, Jean believes that he was actually visiting Mary. It's that kind of allegation that enrages her. "If I had had an affair with Newt Gingrich, I would have ended up on the Ways and Means [Committee],"Bono blasts back.

Sonny, however, did have his own suspicions that he shared with friends. "Sonny did believe that she was having an affair with her karate teacher," Gilbert says. "There's no doubt about that. Sonny told many people. I've asked Mary about it, [and] Mary says they were just friends." Gilbert concedes that his former friend was a "jealous" man who knew he was married to a very attractive woman. Pam Mann, Sonny's former assistant, says that Sonny was sometimes "depressed" about his marriage. "He had reached the point where he had just about given up on making it work," she says.

But Jim and Eleanor Randall, who were with the Bonos on their fateful skiing vacation, were moved by how contented the two of them seemed. "He was more in love with Mary than ever," Jim recalls. "She was a great wife to Sonny," Eleanor adds. "They seemed like a really great couple."

Jean had her own problems with her son and other family members. Bono tells of the time that Jean and her then-husband had a spat with Sonny and quit their jobs at his restaurant; then, Bono says, they sold word of the dispute to the National Enquirer. "Oh, it hurt him deeply to have his own mother do that," Bono says. Frank Cullen, the press secretary, is quick to point out that neither of Sonny's two sisters is presently talking to their mother, who is in litigation with her ex-husband.

"Sonny's and my marriage, yes, it had its difficulties," Bono says. "But I don't think our problems were any bigger or worse than any other marriage. The nine months before he died, things were excellent." Touching a stunning sapphire-and-diamond pendant that Sonny gave her their last Christmas, she says quietly, "I don't have to defend my husband's love for me."

But of all the burdens that Sonny Bono left his widow, perhaps none is as troublesome as his relationship with the Church of Scientology, the controversial religion that critics, including dozens of former members, say is a dangerous cult. In 1954, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology. Its followers undergo "auditing" --extensive confessionals -- and take courses to cope with the "reactive mind" and achieve a "clear" state. Sonny's relationship to Scientology began long before his marriage to Mary, and like his mother, it does not easily go away.

Sonny had flirted with Scientology since the 1970s, Mann says, "because Cher wanted him to go." The pair were seen together at meetings in the mid-1970s, but Cher reportedly lost interest. (Cher did not return George's phone calls.) In the mid-1980s, Sonny shared his enthusiasm with his third wife, Susie Coelho, who later married an active member of the church. Before his political career, Sonny was a vocal proponent of Scientology among his family and friends. After Hubbard died in 1986, Sonny wrote tributes that were featured in church literature." My only sorrow is that L. Ron Hubbard left before I could thank him for my new life," reads one.

Sonny even talked his mother into trying Scientology. "He said, 'It'll be good for you,'" says Jean, who was 73 at the time. She says Sonny arranged for his own Scientology counselor, Billy McCall, to "audit" her in 1987, in the pool house behind Bono's restaurant. McCall told one friend of Sonny's that he also worked with actors Tom Cruise, Mimi Rogers, and Kirstie Alley. Jean said she sat facing McCall across a desk. "There are these cans like tomato-sauce cans, and you hold one can in each hand. It's like a lie detector. He asks you questions: Did you ever steal or murder or were you ever present? They ask you serious stuff, anything they can use against you." The session ran 45 minutes and cost Sonny $1,500. "He said, 'You just have to have faith.' He was brainwashed."

Gilbert recalls Sonny badgering him to take a Scientology marriage course with him and Mary in 1991 or '92. "They brought these two instructors out," Gilbert recalls. "Sonny and Mary were upstairs [with their instructor] in the restaurant, and my wife, Denise, and I were downstairs with a different instructor." The session lasted about two hours and cost $800. "It was the biggest scam in the world," Gilbert says, laughing.

The tellingly titled Scientology magazine, Celebrity, listed both Sonny and Mary Bono as having taken numerous courses, such as one called Marriage. Mary Bono enrolled in at least six in 1989 and '90, including How to Improve and Financial Success.

According to Bono and Gilbert, Sonny embraced Scientology's self-help courses but rejected it as a religion. "Sonny didn't believe that L. Ron Hubbard was a prophet. He told me that Hubbard was a falling-down drunk who drank himself to death," Gilbert says. "Sonny wore a cross and called himself a Catholic." Vinny Argiro, an actor who was close to Sonny, says Sonny used Scientology courses to help him with his marriages and relationships.

"When I met Sonny, he was very involved in it," Bono says. "And I knew nothing about it. I didn't even know the negative side to it at that point. So I thought, 'This is great,' and I took the courses with him. But as time went on, to put it lightly, I didn't believe it was for me. I thought it was very expensive and far too consuming."

When Sonny decided to run for mayor of Palm Springs in 1987, he was keenly aware of the downside to his political ambitions if his Scientology connections became well known. Jean says that Sonny had dropped out "because he didn't think it would be good for him politically." Though Sonny avoided the topic publicly, he quietly maintained his ties.

Once in Congress, Bono advanced several issues dear to Scientology. Gilbert says he was at the Bono house when two men from the church arrived to meet with Sonny soon after his 1994 election. "They took him into a room and wouldn't let me in," Gilbert recalls. "They left after a couple of hours. Sonny didn't tell me what they said."

A State Department official says, "Sonny was very involved in Scientology issues in general, and he gave a lot of energy to a lawsuit Scientology had against Netcom." Citing copyright infringement, Scientologists initiated the suit to force Netcom On-Line Communications Services, an Internet access provider, to remove church writings an ex-Scientologist had posted on Netcom's computer network. Bono also championed the church's efforts to battle Germany's restrictions on Scientology.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Sonny became instrumental in convincing the Clinton administration's Office of the United States Trade Representative to lobby Sweden to stop allowing public access to Scientology's scriptures. Unlike traditional religions, Scientology charges its adherents thousands of dollars to take its courses. Fees for these courses, according to church literature, run from $8,000 to $77,000. In 1996, the church sued a Swedish man for posting the teachings on the Internet and offering them to the Swedish Parliament, which provides public access to its documents. Scientologists also applied a full-court press on U.S. trade representative Charlene Barshefsky to pressure Sweden to keep the documents secret.

In 1997, Sonny called and wrote Barshefsky and also wrote to the Swedish minister of justice asking her to intervene. Siding with Sonny, Barshefsky cited the issue as a violation of Scientology's copyrights and threatened to take the matter before the World Trade Organization. "Whether we like it or not, they had a case," says Joe Papovich, an assistant to Barshefsky. Under pressure from the U.S., Sweden agreed in October 1997 to stop allowing public access to the documents. Goeran Schaeder, legal affairs chief at the Swedish Justice Department, explained that the decision was made "to protect our international contacts." Although Sweden's highest court later unsealed the documents, the church now supports legislation that would make freedom of speech concerns secondary to copyright infringement.

But Sonny grew increasingly disenchanted with the church. "They kept calling him," Gilbert says. "They leaned on him to pass legislation, and for more money. He got tired of writing them $1,000 checks all the time. They were after him for all sorts of stuff." Sonny had something else to consider: Critics say the church takes a harsh view of homosexuality, but in 1995, Sonny and Cher's daughter Chastity announced she was a lesbian. Sonny, by all accounts, adored his daughter and came to accept her sexuality.

Whatever Sonny's ambivalence, one former political opponent says Scientology played a role in his congressional race. In the early fall of 1994, Bono's Democratic opponent, former state representative Steve Clute, distributed campaign literature that identified Sonny as a follower of the Church of Scientology. Soon afterward, Clute recalls, a man and a woman, who identified themselves as church officials, approached him at a public meeting. "The gentleman informed me that he did not want me to mention the Church of Scientology or indicate any relationship to Sonny in reference to it," Clute says. "It was not a pleasant meeting." A friend of Bono's admits that he contacted church officials but that he did so without Sonny's permission. "Sonny was pissed at me at first," says the friend, who requests anonymity. "But then he thought it was a good idea. And it worked." Bono says she has no knowledge of Clute's experience but adds, "I would take Steve Clute's word for it."

Sonny's Democratic opponent in 1996, Anita Rufus, a former radio talk-show host, says, "Sonny claimed, for local consumption, that he wasn't a Scientologist, that he had nothing to do with it, which we all knew was a crock."

Even in death, Sonny was important to the church. His funeral was attended by his counselor and friend Billy McCall; the Reverend Heber Jentzsch, the president of Scientology; and Karen Hollander, then the president of Scientology's Celebrity Centre International, Heber's "right hand," according to Bono. "Susie Coelho actually asked me if Heber could do the ceremony," Bono says, her eyebrows arched.

Bono frowns. "I see Heber's picture, the one of him bending over and kissing the coffin, all the time."

The Scientology issue is a thorny one for whoever represents the 44th District. While the church is incorporated in Los Angeles, its international headquarters, according to former members, is located in Gilman Hot Springs, near the town of Hemet, about 40 minutes from Bono's home. The 500-acre facility, which houses some 1,000 staff members, is heavily guarded with motion and sound detectors and surveillance cameras that record activity both outside and inside the gates. Numerous former Scientologists say they were forcibly detained and physically and emotionally abused there as part of the group's Rehabilitation Project Force. Jesse Prince says he was in the church for 16 years and worked directly with Hubbard in the early 1980s. Prince charges that he did two stints in RPF, which he calls "a slave labor camp" where he was forced "to pull weeds in the desert under armed guards and dogs" for six months. (Prince says that before he left the church, he had to sign a document clearing Scientology of any wrongdoing.) "There are several notorious RPF camps in the Palm Springs- Riverside area," says Stephen Kent, a sociologist of religion at the University of Alberta who has written about the RPF. "They almost certainly violate state labor laws as well as human rights." Despite recent coverage in the press about accusations of abuse at the facility, Bono says she is unaware of the allegations.

Church officials confirm the existence of the Rehabilitation Project Force but deny any improper or illegal activity. "It's a strictly voluntary program," says Janet Weiland, a church spokesperson, adding, "It's an incredible program for people to get relief when they're not doing well."

Rick Ross, a critic of the church, says, "Sonny was the Scientology point man on the Hill, and we're going to keep a very close eye on Mary's legislative agenda." Like her late husband, Bono is a member of the House subcommittee that has jurisdiction over intellectual property law, including copyright.

Bono does acknowledge meeting twice with church representatives in Washington since her election: Mike Rinder, a church director close to leader David Miscavige, and David Miller, whom she describes as "a lobbyist, which means [he's] just a mercenary." She adds, "And they brought John [Travolta] to one meeting."

But Bono may not prove to be an ally for Scientology. With some reluctance, she discloses that Sonny had his own problems when he tried to break away from the church. Bono recalls traveling with Sonny somewhere in California during his 1991 book tour when church members paid a visit to their hotel. "Sonny did try to break away at one point, and they made it very difficult for him," she says. "Extremely difficult. I was resentful of that. I did not like the fact that he said, 'Hey, I'm done with it. I'm not a Scientologist.' And they were saying, 'Hey, you can't do that.' He was amazed, and I was upset."

Rinder denies any falling out between the church and the Bonos. "I had numerous conversations with Sonny until he died. Any estrangement is untrue." But Bono says church officials approached her after her election more to heal a rift than to pursue their legislative agenda. "They knew I had some problems with them," Bono says. "It was more about the break and the fact that it was a bunch of bullshit. I didn't believe in it. And when they came into my office, I let them know that."

Bono says slowly, "They are constituents of mine. They have a huge facility in Hemet, and if they come in with a legitimate concern, then I will address it." On the other hand, constituents who have complaints against the church will also get her attention. "It's something that I will watch. I know the D.A. and sheriff here quite well. We will look into it."

Kim Waltrip, Bono's best friend, who runs her Palm Springs office, arrives at 5:30 p.m. one Saturday in the spring to accompany Bono to her two remaining events. Waltrip, tall and attractive, is a former model and actress who met Sonny in the early 1980s when they were both studying acting.

Bono runs to her bedroom and returns in an off-shoulder black knit dress. On the way to the next outing, she is relaxed and chatty, talking about how she hopes the politics of personal attacks don't deter Texas governor George W. Bush. "I can support a colorful person who's learned from his past," she says. "I want someone in the White House who's had a life."

Or people in Congress. She's already decided to run again in 2000 and is not ruling out a later bid for Senate or anything else. "I learned the hard way," she says. "It would be a huge mistake to go through boot camp and quit. Impeaching the president -- it doesn't get much rougher than that."

At a mixer for about 75 of the party faithful in a private home in Palm Springs, Bono and her fellow baby boomer pal Waltrip, with their drop-dead, sporty looks, seem like they've wandered over from a party at the Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Boulevard. Bono knocks back a margarita and gives a long, unscripted speech. She quips about doing "two firsts": giving a speech after drinking a margarita and wearing her new dress. She says she is keeping an open mind about the presidential race, praising Senator John McCain of Arizona for looking and sounding good and having "great leadership qualities."

The crowd, which is older and somewhat crotchety, with plenty of anti-Clinton venom, falls silent after Bono endorses Tipper Gore's stand on mental illness and record labels. But, agile on her feet, she rebounds with a plug for Dan Quayle and family values. "Dan Quayle was right!" she exclaims, and now they are with her. During the question-and-answer period, a man in a magenta shirt, starchy white trousers, and a Liberace-style toupee, demands to know, "When are we going to put the Ten Commandments back in the schools? "And, he asks, what in God's name is she going to do about the American Civil Liberties Union?

Out of her husband's shadow, out on her own, Mary Bono is quietly but thoroughly ditching Sonny's baggage -- the mother, the ex-wives, the Scientologists -- and she's moving on, returning to her homespun Republican roots. She listens dutifully as her constituent finishes his windy ACLU tirade. Then, without a trace of irony or condescension, she says, "I agree. I agree. I agree."

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